The Power of Mediocrity in 'Pierre Grassou'
At the beginning of Pierre Grassou Balzac bemoans the bland dullness of the artwork which has been produced since the 1830 revolution. He speaks directly to the reader, asking, “Have you not been overcome by feelings of distress, boredom and sadness at the sight of the long, crowded galleries?”, (Balzac, 249), and he goes to great lengths in order to discuss just how inadequate and unworthy of praise these supposedly great works are. His disgust with the state of French art comes from the fact that there is simply too much of it, and there is no longer any way to appreciate the truly great works. He writes that, “Instead of a tournament, you have a riot; instead of a magnificent exhibition, you have a rowdy bazaar; instead of selected pictures, you have everything. What is the result? The great artist is the loser” (Balzac, 250). This world of artistic achievement does not allow any truly great professional to rise to the top on account of their talents and abilities. It is just a mass of voices clamouring to be heard, each one as alike as the next. Into this milieu, then, wanders the unassuming Pierre Grassou.
Grassou is such an anonymous figure that he is not even referred to by his name by those who deal with his paintings. He is a native of Fougėres and so he is referred to by the name of his uninteresting home town. Naturally he has come to Paris in order to make his fortune but, when we first meet him, he seems to be in no great hurry to strike it big in the capital. Instead he lives alone and, when describing his living arrangements, Balzac states that, “The whole place indicated the meticulous way of life of a small-minded man”, (Balzac, 251) which Grassou does certainly seem to be. Yet it is to these kinds of people that the spoils of the world often seem to fall.
Grassou knows how to make his way in the art world, even if he only manages it at the pace of a slovenly snail. He is as aware of his lack of ability as everyone else is, not least because he is told about it frequently enough. When he shows his work to a friend the friendly advice he receives is that he should, “Go home early, put on a night-cap, go to bed at nine o'clock. In the morning, at ten o'clock go to an office and ask for a job, and leave the Arts”, (Balzac, 255), yet he persists even where others see no worth in him. He is, in some senses, heroic in his quiet perseverance, and simultaneously a dilettante who has no place in the world that he inexplicably inhabits. Balzac allows us to see this character in whichever light we choose, such is his brilliance.
Balzac also introduces Joseph Bridau into the story, a recurring character of his and one who does not suffer from the inadequacies of his artist friend. Bridau is truly gifted and behaves as such. He is very much the opposite of the diffident and kindly Grassou, when Bridau makes an entrance he seems as if he has appeared from some barbarian woodland rather than the streets of Paris. Upon entering Grassou's studio we are told that, “Towards the end of the sitting, there was a noise on the staircase, the door was roughly thrown open and, lo and behold, Joseph Bridau! He was in a great state, his hair flying, his large face distraught”, (Balzac 266), yet it is not this wild man and visionary who is able to rise to the top in the society. Instead the quiet and unassuming Grassou finds himself in a position of great wealth when he marries into the powerful Vervelle family and earns the princely sum of twelve thousand francs a year as a portrait artist.
It is fitting that he would paint the portraits of others and do it well. He shows that he has the ability to quietly bring out the best in others and to fade into the background wherever he is needed. He is, naturally, as decent and upstanding when he takes on the role of husband as he is when he takes on the role of a portrait painter. It is said that “The Vervelles and the Grassous, who get on splendidly together, are the happiest people in the world”, (Balzac 270), and this is no doubt thanks to the decency of Grassou himself. Even in his final analysis Balzac cannot say a bad word about Grassou but also cannot say a particularly good word either. All that he can say is that, “There are more irritating and ill-natured mediocrities than Pierre Grassou. Moreover, he does good deeds without saying a word about them and is always ready to oblige”,(Balzac 271), and there is little else that can be said about the man. He has risen through the ranks of the great and the good in society without ever being truly great or creating anything extraordinary. He is, even in his ordinariness, a remarkable Balzac creation.